The Text: Mark 7:1-23
When we read this Gospel, we get the impression that the Pharisees were talking about hands, but Jesus talks about hearts.
Hands and hearts seem to have totally different functions, so why does Jesus do this? Why does he talk about the cleansing of hearts when the Pharisees want to talk about the washing of hands?
Well, firstly let’s consider the accusation of the Pharisees.
We often picture the Pharisees as bad people. They’re always hanging around in the background of Jesus’ work, criticising him, questioning him, and accusing him and his disciples. But the Pharisees are like you and me. They’re faithful people of God trying to do the right thing. They’re trying to be faithful to God’s teachings.
So, when they see someone doing something incorrectly, such as not performing the ritual of washing their hands in the right way, or not sitting still during the sermon, or not singing theologically correct songs, or not wearing appropriate clothes for worship, or anything else that wasn’t faithfully true to their religion, they were going to say something about it!
They’re deeply concerned about doing the right thing in accordance with their understanding of what God says in his Word. But this meant the Pharisees can seem like theological police who took it upon themselves to make sure everyone behaved the correct way.
We still do this today, both in our own church context, but also in public life. We communicate religious or cultural expectations on each other thinking that, if only everyone did the right thing, no one would get hurt.
For example, the wider church has been appropriately criticized for their inaction (or bad reactions) to reported abuse. A common reaction is to communicate clear expectations of how everyone should behave through sermons or newsletters or magazines or professional standards. If only we all behaved properly, then nothing will go wrong.
Now, this isn’t necessarily wrong, because we should seek to treat each other with love and concern and respect and compassion, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. It’s just making sure we know how to perform the right actions with our hands – at least when anyone is looking.
Similarly, the secular world is doing similar things. There are secular Pharisees trying to restrict or control or guide what we do or not do, or what we say or not say. Many would call this ‘political correctness’, but it’s still another way we communicate clear expectations of each other so everyone will do the right thing, that no one gets hurt, and we’ll finally live in a perfect world!
Again, it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. It either makes more Pharisees who are concerned with doing the right thing when anyone is watching, or it encourages people to hide or justify their sin of rebellion as they disobey these expectations and laws and guidelines.
But more importantly, it denies a basic truth we’re told in Scripture.
It denies the biblical teaching on original sin which can’t be controlled by laws or rules or commandments or directives or rituals or guidelines or political correctness.
You see, we’re not sinners just because we fail to control our feet or lips or eyes or hands from doing the wrong thing, but we’re sinners because of what’s going on in our hearts. We’re all born with the sickness of sin which was inherited from our original ancestors. Our outward actions are only the symptoms of a deeper disease which affects the very centre of our being – our hearts!
Now, when Jesus speaks about our hearts, he isn’t so much talking about that fleshy muscle which repeatedly pumps blood through our veins, but he’s referring to the place where our will or motivation or self-determination resides which will affect what we do.
For example, if our heart is set on having one more piece of cake, our hands and mouth will often follow suit. If our heart is afraid of something or someone, our body will seek to avoid that situation or that person. If our heart trusts the only way to get what we want is by throwing a tantrum, then our lips and hands and other parts of our body will follow suit. If our heart is set on thinking we’re right and everyone else is wrong, that judgment will sooner or later leak out our rolling eyes, our arrogant lips, and our offended body actions.
You could say, the sin which we do with our hands or lips or any other part if our bodies is the ‘what’, but the sin behind the sin is the ‘why’ which lies within our hearts.
For instance, if we were to apply Luther’s explanation of the first commandment to any sin we do, which is: ‘we should fear, love and trust God above all things’, this means we will sin with our body whenever our heart fears, loves or trusts anything else apart from God, even for a moment.
So, let’s say you didn’t like it when your father grounded you for doing something wrong. In response you openly criticised him behind his back, trying to make others think badly of him. In that case you broke the fourth commandment by not honouring your father. You also broke the eighth commandment by bearing false witness.
This was the ‘what’ which you did, but the ‘why’ is because you may have feared losing face in front of your friends and you’d rather your father lose face instead of you. It could be you’re missing out on something you love or desire, and so you’re going to punish him for stopping you from getting what you want. It could also be you trust others will now do the fighting for you so they can convince your father to give you what you want.
But it also works when you don’t think you’re sinning but trying to live a holy life (just like the Pharisees)!
In this case, let’s say you’re trying to please your father and will do everything possible to please him. Sounds great doesn’t it? Isn’t this trying to keep the fourth commandment? There’s no sin in doing this, is there?
But what if the motivation for doing this isn’t because you fear, love and trust God, but because you fear your father is going to punish you if you don’t? What if you’re doing this with the hope he’ll give you what you love or desire as a reward? What if you’re trusting this is the only way you can get your father to finally love or approve of you?
This means, we not only sin when we’re doing the wrong thing, but even when we’re doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. This means what’s going on in our hearts is always going to give us away!
But, how does Jesus know what’s going on in our hearts?
Well, apart from the fact he’s God and God alone can see what’s truly in our heart and all our motivations for everything we say or do, he judges our hearts, not so much with what goes into it, but what comes out of it.
Now, we might think as obedient and faithful people of God our heart is always filled with love and compassion and respect; but all someone needs to do is ‘push our buttons’, or present us with a temptation, or threaten whatever we’re trusting in and we’ll soon see what comes out of our hearts!
This is why Jesus lists the things which come out of people’s hearts (which by the way isn’t an exhaustive list), but it indicates that out of the selfish desires, anxious fears, and misplaced trusts of our hearts come all these impure thoughts, words and actions.
Since our hands and lips and thoughts only do what our heart directs them to do, this means our hands and lips and thoughts betray where the motivations of our hearts truly lie. The ugly truth is our words, actions, and thoughts end up convicting us our heart is in fact far from God!
No wonder King David, when convicted of his sins, prayed:
‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.’ (Ps 51:10)
This means we don’t have behaviour management problems in our church or society. We have sick and selfish hearts which need to be cleansed, healed and sanctified. The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do, and the work of Jesus through the church is to cleanse and heal people’s hearts.
Jesus didn’t come to make sure we’re all behaving the right way, but to perform heart surgery on you and me through his gracious forgiveness which transforms our stubborn and pride-filled hearts into clean and pure hearts which love and serve others with that same grace and mercy.
How does he do this? He does it this way:
The good news is, by the free and undeserving grace of God, we’re all forgiven for our actions which hurt others.
- We’re forgiven for ostracizing others as outcasts from our circle of approved friends.
- We’re forgiven for criticizing others because they didn’t live up to our standards.
- We’re forgiven for thinking ourselves better than others because of our own arrogance or pride.
- We’re forgiven for not honouring our parents properly.
- We’re forgiven for our failures as parents.
- We’re forgiven for spreading those juicy pieces of gossip and for speaking those swear words when we got frustrated.
- We’re forgiven for all our indecent and wrongful actions and words and thoughts.
The next time we’re offered the very body and blood of our Saviour, we’ll see him come to us in the form of bread and wine. We’ll take his holy body in those same hands which hurt others, and so those hands will be purified by him.
We’ll also receive his holy blood on those same lips which have criticised and insulted and gossiped, and so our lips will be purified to speak holy words of love and forgiveness to others.
His holy body and blood will be absorbed into our blood stream to pulse through our hearts so that, by faith, our hearts will beat with the same love, and determination to serve, as Jesus’ own heart.
Through trusting these precious and holy means of grace – his Word and Sacraments – we and our hearts are made pure and clean and holy once more. By God’s grace, which is revealed through the willing actions of Jesus Christ (who truly reveals God’s own heart to us), he comes to restore his relationship with us and bring our hearts closer to his own heart.
No matter how far our hearts were, or are, from God, only God can cleanse and create new hearts which truly fear, love, and trust God.
Only God, through the work of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can restore our relationship with God, and our relationships with others. Only God can draw our hearts closer to his own heart.
For this reason, we can pray along with King David, that God would create in us clean hearts, and renew a right spirit within us. Amen.